Japan enter Asia's qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ seeking to prolong their love affair with the global showpiece which began thirteen years ago. The East Asians booked their maiden qualification for the world extravaganza at France 1998, with a one-off playoff victory over Iran. The Blue Samurai have since been dominant in the continental qualifying competition, going on to represent Asia in each of the past three editions.
FIFA World Cup finals history
They failed to live up to the expectations in their debut FIFA World Cup, losing three straight games to bow out. However, 2002 Korea/Japan saw them make history on home soil in Asia's first FIFA World Cup, winning a group that also featured Russia, Belgium and Tunisia to storm into the second round, only to lose out to eventual third-place finishers Turkey by a solitary goal. They were brought back down to earth at Germany 2006, salvaging merely a point from three group games to dump out.
They more than redeemed themselves at South Africa 2010 though, progressing to the second stage at the expense of the likes of Denmark and Cameroon. They came close to stunning Paraguay in the consequent round-of-16 clash, with the South Americans only advancing through a penalty shootout victory after regular and extra time finished goalless.
The current crop
Under former coach Takeshi Okada, a host of youth talents announced their arrival on the international scene as Japan broke new ground in the last FIFA World Cup. The new generation has continued their progress under Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, who took over after their campaign in South Africa 2010. A series of impressive friendly wins, including a 1-0 defeat of a full-strength Argentina, was followed by their all-conquering performance during January's AFC Asian Cup, where they pipped Australian in the final to claim their fourth continental title. Japan's game has long been marked by their creative play and silky passing but boosted by their continental success, while Zaccheroni began to test his trademark 3-4-3 tactical system in the recent Kirin Cup.
The key players
Having excelled during the last FIFA World Cup and the recent AFC Asian Cup, CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda has quickly established his place as the team's new leader, filling the void left by Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.
Spearheading the attacking-line are Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, who finished the continental finals as the team's top-scorer with three goals. Driving the central field alongside Honda is set-piece specialist Yasuhito Endo while Schalke 04 defender Atsuto Uchida is the key man at the rearguard.
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
Best performances in a FIFA competition: Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Mexico City 1968 (Third place), FIFA U-20 World Cup Nigeria 1999 (Runners-up), FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 (Quarter-finals)
Former stars: Kazuyoshi Miura, Shunsuke Nakamura, Hidetoshi Nakata